Saturday, 31 July 2010

Without a Doubt

Was the great novel you’ve just read a fluke? Could its author do it again and would the new book be as good as the first? Doubt follows writers around like a ghost. It’s worse with verse. Can the poet ever again write a new poem as decent as the one just completed? Isn’t the whole business a catalogue of chance? Writers persistently doubt their powers and always need people out there to reassure them that, yes, they should carry on.

Years back when blues singers were being rediscovered living in shacks on the Mississippi delta they were encouraged, fifty years on, to record again in spanking new studios and on first class instruments. It turned out that all they wanted to know was how they’d done today. Had the track they’d just laid down been anything like as good as the stuff they used to make? They had no idea if it had been Cripple Hard-Armed Davies playing with them on that recording of Wuppa Wuppa Blues they’d made in Clarksdale in 1928. Who cares? All that matters is now. So, too, with writers.

Doubt comes in insidious forms. It sneaks up on you. Wales Book of the Year long listees sometimes wonder if they’ve got in there by mistake. Wasn’t the novel they wrote two years back, which got absolutely nowhere, actually much better?

Why are my poems not in your anthology, a well-known poet complained to me. The book I was editing collected work originated from Cardiff. He lived in Aberystwyth. I explained, or tried to. But his doubts persisted. There was a conspiracy, out there, against him. His work was not up to the mark. I had taken against him because of that dismal review he’d written of my work and published in Planet in 1978. As time had moved on his poems had become dated. He was on a black list somewhere. Anything but the truth. I needed material about the capital. He hadn’t written any.

Recently I discovered the work of Philip Roth. I read The Plot Against America, by chance, and found it spellbinding. Why had I never read this genius before, for genius he certainly appeared. The book was a thrilling meld of history, fantasy, personal demons and ideological battle. It was written with erudition and humour and had a plot which whistled.

When done I tackled Amazon and ordered a Roth bucket-full. The Ghost Writer, The Human Stain, American Pastoral. How often in life do you discover a new writer with so much published brilliance under his genius belt? Roth, an author possessed of no doubt whatsoever. His works stretched, glowing, towards the horizon.

And how did I find them? I’m not sure yet. Has doubt arrived? We’ll see.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 31st July, 2010. #158

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Finding Traffic

A little while back the sages of publishing predicted that the first thing to go in the burgeoning online world would be encyclopaedias, gazetteers and handbooks. Those textural tomes that break your wrist just to lift them. The AA Gazetteer Of Places To Stay. The Directory Of British Sub-Post Offices. The Whiskey Lovers Guide To The Scottish Islands. The Cyfansoddiadau. Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack. And it’s mostly come to pass. The handbook has all but vanished, although maybe not yet in the case of the last two mentioned. The Cyfansoddiadau, Wisden’s for Eisteddfod-goers, looks as if it will never fade. Wisden’s itself, however, is morphing into an all-sports compendium and has an online version beckoning.

Barry Turner’s enduring and always vital The Writer’s Handbook has just published its 2011 edition. Tome it is, too. At 766 pages it needs a desk just to be read. It’s heavier than the iPad, but just as new and vital. Amid the advice on characterisation in popular fiction, how to get ahead as a ghost writer, how to write children’s books, do your accounts, command the network, produce a bestseller, settle your accounts and handle bad reviewers sits a cogent section entitled poetry.

This is compiled by the man behind Salt Publishing, one of the great short-run phenomena of the noughties, Chris Hamilton-Emery. Among his informative and useful advice Hamilton-Emery hones in on the ten changes he expects to see in the coming decade. In the order he lists them these are as follows: Print magazines will vanish. Criticism will move entirely online. Choice will drive the reader to compile their own anthologies, set up their own internet channels, make their selections the yardstick of poetry commerce. Books as the poetry unit will fade. Everyone will become their own publisher. The bricks and mortar bookshop will disappear. Poetry will become increasingly performance based and delivered by multi-media. Verse will return to its roots, “as the shared imagination of a specific online community”. Creative writing will produce vast and participative infrastructures and almost all poets will work within this industry. Getting published will cease to be the benchmark of success. Being read, “finding traffic” as Hamilton-Emery puts it, will be the indicator instead.

Some of this sounds obvious. Already the review in hard print has ceased to be the point of judgement. By the time your reviewed book appears in Planet, for example, you may well be out there promoting your next. In Wales we have never worried much about immediacy. But instant reaction via the blogosphere is seeing an end to all that.

Other of Hamilton-Emery’s predictions, however, do push the envelope. Will performance really become the only way forward? The Writer’s Handbook 2011 is published by Macmillan.

A version of this posting appeared in the Western Mail of Saturday 24th July, 2010 as The Insider - #157

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Instant Lit

How instant is this age we’re living in? A poet of my acquaintance, a pretty well-know poet actually, has just told me that his next collection, submitted to his not insignificant publishers in good time and in perfect form, has been accepted. They said it was a great book, he told me, something that would enhance his reputation. But it wouldn’t come out until autumn 2012. 2012! We could all be dead by then. The wave of tax-increases we face may well have induced mass Welsh suicide. The bomb might return and there’d be no Wales left. 2012. Three years away. By then the world’s last bookshop will have closed and literature will have been dropped from the school syllabus in favour of street-talk studies.

This is an instant world where it is expected that the email will elicit an immediate response and the text message be replied too almost as fast as it is sent. The whole population operates as if it were on caffeine overdrive. Only those who have phones “for emergencies” and never turn them on are excluded.

It once was that the advice to young poets was to write the stuff then leave it in a drawer for several months where, like cheese, it might mature. When you came back to it, a good distance now between you and the hot point of the work’s inspiration, you’d be able to tell if it actually worked. If you were onto something. Or was this, in reality, a piece of self-indulgence. Half the amateur poetry in the world actually is. No, that’s an exaggeration. It’s more like ninety percent.

What we seem to have lost in this rush of speed, scrabble for short, screen-readable sentences, and images which hit the spot as you read them is anything considered. Poetry works best when it opens slowly to reveal its wonders one by one. Not everything under the sun has to go bang. Too much of that and your ears will fail.

In the rush to contain costs many contemporary publishers have sacked their copy editors. No longer do we have someone on staff pointing out the difference between “principal” and “principle” or explaining when it’s right to say “most of her verse” rather than “the majority of her poetry”. With the aid of native wit and Microsoft the writer is expected to get it right first time. Many don’t. Take care who you copy. Just because it’s in print doesn’t make it right.

Which brings us back to the long wait until 2012. Why the log jam? All the publisher needs to do is add a cover and get the thing into the shops. And there may be the answer. How many of us actually buy? Clearly not enough.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 17th July, 2010. #156

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Real Bloomsbury

The Real series of alternative handbooks, histories and guides to the conurbations of Wales is expanding. South Pembrokeshire next. Powys soon. Then Bangor. But beyond that is another country. In preparation for the publication of Nicholas Murray’s book I’ve spent the weekend walking around Bloomsbury. Not a thing I usually do nor something, it seems, that all that many tourists do either. For a slice of central London this Georgian suburb of avenue and leaf seemed relatively deserted.

Bloomsbury is that region of London elegance stretching from the British Museum to Euston and the far end of Oxford Street to St Pancras, that new entreport for visitors from Europe. They arrive from their green French fields and their muscular German industrialnesses to gaze on what, until very recently, was the red light district of Kings Cross. Today those urban difficulties have been moved on. What remains is a sprawl of cheap eateries surreally enlivened with a statue of John Betjeman.

What I did find, specialist bookshops aside, was something we don’t see that much of in Wales – plaques. In Bloomsbury the bookshops are as diverse as they come – horses, Tunisia, the gay universe – and so too are the plaques. Circular inscriptions celebrating the fact that W B Yeats spent many years of his life writing in this back room. That Charles Dickens lived in Doughty Street for long enough to complete five novels. That the man who thought up the idea for the postal service did it while residing near Tavistock Square. That the Bloomsbury set itself – Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Lytton Strachey – all lived, at one time or another, in the tall, beautifully proportioned houses of Gordon Square.

Back home the Rhys Davies Trust has been putting up plaques to the literary eminent for decades. John Tripp, Leslie Norris, Glyn Jones, Brenda Chamberlain, John Ormond, R S Thomas are all celebrated. More men than women but that’s the shape to which Welsh writing once conformed. But it’s slow progress. The unsubstantiated fear is that a plaque on the house will attract visiting hoards who will come to stare and trample on the tulips. As a nation we should be more welcoming.

To promote our native plaques – and despite what I’ve said there are still a fair number – visitors can use the Academi’s new interactive plaque finder web site at There are also free of celebratory black and white postcards. Series one has sixteen cards showing some of our greatest including John Tripp, Roland Mathias, Raymond Williams, Brenda Chamberlain, Emyr Humphries, T H Jones, Jack Jones, Leslie Norris, and R S.

Sets are free and can be obtained by sending a large stamped addressed envelop to the Academi, 3rd floor, Mount Stuart House, Mount Stuart Square, Cardiff CF10 5FQ.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday July 10, 2010. #155

Saturday, 3 July 2010

World Leaders and Vertical Drinkeries

Cardiff is a world leader in a few things, or so it imagines. City of arcades, city of parks, youngest waterfront, greatest number of vertical drinkeries (bars where you stand up rather than sit down), more stag nights than anywhere outside Vilnius. It’s also host to one of the english-speaking world’s most popular poetry contests – the Cardiff International Poetry Competition. Founded way back in the 1980s and offering five thousand pounds prize money for a single 40 lines (max) poem. That’s an amazing sum for a single piece of unpublished verse.

When the competition started, initially on its own and without council help, entrants were stunned at the possibilities of instant wealth. Better odds than the lottery suggested one wannabe, although as there was no lottery back then maybe I imagined that.

The Cardiff Competition is run by the Academi. The idea is that entries are judged with the names of the poets removed. The fact that you may be Simon Armitage will cut no ice. The quality of the work is what gets you through.

The competition’s judges – a panel of three – are usually pretty well-known names. Gillian Clarke, Roger McGough, Ian Macmillan and Les Murray have all been on the team. Entrants come from everywhere. This is an international competition and stuff wings its way into the capital of Wales literally from the whole wide world.

In the days when communication could only be made by letter post things were relatively straightforward. Admittedly some entrants would send by special courier, or turn up themselves bearing their poems with faces full of hope. Fuss was minimal. Understanding of how the thing actually worked was commonplace.

But now we have email and entrants, some of them, and despite a rule which warns that no communication can be entered into, feel the urge to ask things of the organisers on a daily basis. Your competition says that entries should be unpublished. I read mine out at my brother’s wedding. Does this count? When you say that winners will be notified in the spring do you mean March or might you mean April? My poems are only two lines long. Do I still have to pay the same entry fee?

Instant communication has allowed the world’s litterateurs free reign. Emails arrive giving line by line justification for each poem. Explanations, amplifications, attached photos of the object being lovingly described in verse, detail on the circumstance of composition, bulletins on the entrant’s health, requests for free tickets to the ceremony, offers of house exchanges, free holidays, and drink.

As organisers the Academi have learned to ignore the lot.

Giles Goodland, a former Gillian Clark student has just won the 2010 contest. Watch this space for upcoming details of how to enter for 2011.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 3rd July, 2010. #154